Snowpiercer, Sustainability and the Battle with Ourselves

“Ah, the one with the train”

Said HMV guy. I asked him if he happened to stock Snowpiercer, although I knew it was unlikely. For reasons I believe that are related to artistic disagreements between Harvey Weinstein and Snowpiercer’s director, Bong Joon-ho, the film has had a fairly irregular international release. So irregular, that it’s still not been officially released in the UK. The one with the train, you’ll have to buy it on ebay or Amazon from a foreign country if you want to see the film with 100% legality. I recommend you buy it because it’s an excellent film. If you like your action with a slab of politics on the side, or maybe that should be the other way round, then Snowpiercer won’t disappoint. If however you need your story lines to be cast in solid-reality and logic then this might not be the film for you.

Set in the near future where a failed experiment to stop global warming freezes the earth, Snowpiercer is the laws-of-physics-defying-train that runs on a perpetual motion engine where the last humans now reside. Don’t take the premise too seriously, it’s not supposed to be a prediction of any sort. The train is used as a tool to explore the political systems of man, and indeed, man’s relationship with nature which I’ll look at later. It’s sort of like how the premise of Animal Farm is of course not literal. The powerful critique that the book represents and the analogy it drew to differing systems of economic organisation is what we paid attention to. Snowpiercer is no different.

Our hero is Curtis, played by Chris Evans (Captain America). You can tell he’s the hero because everyone in his part of the train looks like shit, except for him. And possibly Jamie Bell, who plays Curtis’ lieutenant, Edgar. Curtis and his fellow riffraff live in the rear end of the train and endure a harsh existence in which the people from the upper part of the train randomly take their children and give them blocks of black gelatine to eat, but apart from that it’s never made clear exactly why they all share the train and what the purpose is of those who inhabit the back. As we will see later, the very front of the train knows why they’re there, but if you’re one of those guys who’s been living there for 17 years, having escaped the global freeze, what you do with yourself and your time just seems bewildering. It’s a loose part of the plot that could have done with more development, but considering the film is about two hours long and has a lot to tackle it’s just something you need to fill with your imagination.

Nevertheless, even though the world has ended and you’re stuck on a train in economy class forever without even knowing why you’re there, you’ve still got the horn. ‘Train babies’ are naturally those born on the train and it is here that the story begins. Two central characters, one of whom is a friend of Curtis have their children taken away by people from the front of the train. Tanya and Andrew (who I named Crazy Scottish Guy until I read that it is actually Ewan Bremner, completely unrecognisable from earlier roles, most famously Trainspotting) fight, unsuccessfully, to get the children back, resulting in Andrew having his arm removed via frozen decapitation. His arm is placed outside the train via a hole that the train’s designer obviously thought would be necessary at some point.

During the 7 minutes it takes for his arm to completely freeze through Tilda Swinton makes her first appearance as the train’s sort of chief (subordinate to the creator Wilfred of course), Minister Mason. Channelling what can only be described as the ghost of Deidre Barlow and an inflated self-importance belonging to every ambitious bureaucrat, she gives a glorious monologue to the rear-enders, making it clear that they should know their place, quite literally. As Andrew’s screams fade away, she explains that you don’t wear a shoe on your head, you wear a hat. And she is the hat. They are the shoe. It’s our first introduction to the politics of the train. How did Mason become the hat and the others shoes? Because they are freeloaders that came uninvited onto the train. The rest bought their tickets. Thus, they deserve their place and not only deserve it, but should be grateful for their existence. Tied to Mason’s argument is a vague concept about these places also being pre-ordained. Wilfred, the creator of the train and the “engine” is praised as some kind of God-like figure in Mason’s speech. This can be perhaps interpreted as a reflection on religion’s role in society as a device to ameliorate the masses and accept their place in society. They might not have any respect for the cold logic of the free market (I buy my ticket, I have earned my place) but maybe they will if Wilfred can be portrayed as some sort of God?

Besides a later excellent scene with some school children this idea isn’t much developed. No one seems to believe that Wilfred is in any way supernatural nor does this cult seem to have much effect on anyone apart from the children. It seems to be a brief, fanciful pop at the role of religion in society but the shallow nature in which the film tackles the issue doesn’t really add anything to the story apart from add a further edge of surrealism, which is perhaps part of its magic. The central point that Mason makes though, is that having forcefully made their way onto the train the rear-enders should be grateful, for they did not earn their place like the rest of the train. Rationally, what’s there to disagree with? You work for what you get. They did not contribute to the train, so what does the train owe them? This is the root of laissez faire economics and it’s a seductive ideology, as we see in our own world. In the world of Snowpiercer though, it’s not going to wash. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their origin, the rear-enders will not tolerate their condition in perpetuity. Their present state is simply too much to bear. So they do what every oppressed group has done once they have no other option, they turn to force.

When Tilda’s finished, Andrew’s arm is removed from the hole. Two menacing brothers/lovers/father & son – it is not made clear in the film but IMDb says they are Franco the Younger & Elder – destroy his arm with a giant mallet. Andrew’s in immense pain but this doesn’t seem to alter his mental state in any way and he returns to the rear with one arm and the scene is over.

Curtis, under the tutelage of Gilliam (John Hurt), has been planning a rebellion on the train. He is not the first though and we are told that there were other rebellions that failed. Curtis receives little notes hidden in the blocks of gelatine. These notes tell him that the security expert of the train is locked in the cell block, in a carriage a little further up. Earlier, Curtis had heard Mason tell one of the guards to “put away that useless gun”. Curtis suspects that they’ve used all their bullets in the previous rebellions. An opportunity presents itself and our hero tests his theory for himself. In the best moment of first part of the film Curtis points a guard’s gun to his head and pulls the trigger: he doesn’t die and the revolution immediately begins with the guard’s becoming overwhelmed. The film is now in full flow and this is where it really gets going.

The journey then takes its course through each carriage of the train. They find the security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) who appears madder than Andrew. He’s addicted to Kronol, a drug made from industrial waste. He agrees to open the doors on the way to the train in exchange for the drug. Releasing his daughter, Yona, whose brain appears just as muddled from Kronol addiction, Namgoong gets to work. They go through door after door. Our hero discovers what’s in the black gelatinous blocks they eat: cockroaches. It’s a scene that compounds the horror in which the rear-enders have been living in. Curtis doesn’t share the information with his fellow passengers.

They continue on their way. The next carriage is full of hooded men, equipped with axes, and in what is one of the most surreal and creepiest part of the film, the men welcome the revolutionaries by gutting a carp. There’s a few theories for why they do this associated with religion from Asian and Christian cultures, to the more practical theory that the fish blood they dip their axes in will give diseases to the enemies they wound. They fight their way through the men, where in one bizarre passage the hooded men stop fighting, count down to 10 and wish everyone a ‘Happy New Year’. The hooded men then put on googles of some sort. Namgoong hides Yona, telling Curtis he’s a fool. The train is about to pass through one of the longest tunnels on the route. The goggles are for night vision and without natural light to aid them the rear-enders are slaughtered in what is truly hideous footage, shot through the green glow of a night vision camera.

But Curtis, remembering some matches that Namgoong lost to a small pickpocket, calls the young pickpocket’s name. Fire is brought to the front and the light enables Curtis and his class to overcome the hooded men, even resulting in the capture of Mason, although at the cost of Edgar, a choice that Curtis makes which clearly alludes to all revolutionary sacrifices “for the greater good”. Before they move on, Franco the Younger charges forward from his capture in a bid to take out Curtis. Yona trips him and he dies, impaled upon a spear, his last moments spent trying to strangle Yona with one hand. Franco the Elder can only look on, subdued, cold fury etched into his face. We switch to Mason, who promises to help them get to the front in return for her life, and in a gesture of helplessness so nasty that even Andrew looks disgusted, she takes out her false teeth, accentuating her age and vulnerability. They pass through carriage after carriage, each one containing a different wonder. An aquarium, a meat freezer, a greenhouse, eventually stopping in a school. Here we learn how Wilford made the train and what happened to “The Seven”, the frozen seven that the train passes at the moment. We find out from Namgoong that his wife is one of them and that as an Inuit, she taught him all there was to know about snow. This explains her optimism in attempting to leave the train but it wasn’t enough. The seven remain frozen not far from the train, Namgoong’s wife leading them from the front for eternity.

It is then that a bald man passes through with a trolley of eggs, as does a man, taken from the rear end at the very start of the film, with a violin who starts to play it. Everyone takes an egg, which is when Curtis finds a new message: ‘Blood’. The teacher (played with a wonderful mixture of religious fervour and sickening-sweetness by Alison Pill) brings out an Uzi from the trolley and shoots Andrew dead. Everyone dives for cover in the gunfight, and it takes a well-thrown knife by Grey (Luke Pasqualino, of four musketeers fame) to silence the teacher. Mason tries to grab the teacher’s gun but is stopped by Curtis. She barely has time to beg for her life before Curtis loses patience and kills her in cold blood. It’s the first real action we have from Curtis that hints at something deeper than what his pretty-boy good looks let on.

The team carry onwards, but so does the bald headed man in the opposite direction, carrying a basket of eggs. In it is of course an Uzi which he uses on the passengers left behind guarding the prisoners from the various fights. He releases the prisoners, and some of them go to catch up with Curtis. One of them is the Franco the Elder. He pursues Curtis and nothing can stop him. He kills his own men, first-class passengers, Grey and Tanya in his quest to avenge the death of his progeny. The team manages to take him down eventually but now all that’s left is Curtis, Namgoong and Yona.

They go through the last stages, passing through carriages of opulence and debauchery that are unimaginable to Curtis and the world he knows in the rear of the train. Saunas, clubs, drug and sex orgies all exist for the enjoyment of the upper carriage’s members. This is again something the plot struggles to adequately explain – how have they been having parties with alcohol and drugs for 17 years? Once more, it’s not too important and it serves to highlight the disparity between these peoples, and of course, the disparity that exists in our own world. On the way Namgoong steals some drugs and fur coats that the drugged elite all seem to own. They make it to the end of the train, and it appears that there is one door they can’t get past. Curtis, dejected, sits down and tells Namgoong about himself, smoking the last cigarette in existence that is offered by Namgoong. Curtis tells him how the initial chaos of the train boarding took place, how there was no food or water and how the new passengers turned to cannibalism. Curtis tells us what he hates most about himself: he knows that babies taste best. We also discover that Curtis killed Edgar’s mother and had planned to eat Edgar, that is, until Gilliam stepped forward and cut off his own arm in order to save the child. It was then that other passengers did the same as Gilliam and cut off their limbs for others to feed on. Curtis tried to do the same but he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough to do so, and now we understand an earlier scene where Gilliam inspects some scars on Curtis’s arm and tells him that he must lead. Curtis thinks he is no leader because he could not make the sacrifices that Gilliam made. This too is an interesting concept used in the film and I believe reflects our dissatisfaction with our own political and economic leaders that like Curtis, enjoy all the benefits of leadership without any of the real sacrifices truly needed to earn it.

Namgoong though, then opens up for the first time and we see what it is he is doing in all this. He is not just some drug-addled loon: he has a plan too. He thinks it’s getting warmer outside. He has been collecting Kronol because it’s not just a drug: it’s an explosive. Rear end, front end, it doesn’t matter to Namgoong. He wants to be free. Free of the train and free of people, free in nature.

Then the door opens and a woman that took the children away earlier appears and shoots Namgoong, but it is not fatal. Curtis is ordered to come inside where finally, he, and we, meet Wilford (Ed Harris), and the most interesting part of the film really gets going. Wilford eats his steak dinner and talks to Curtis in a grandfatherly tone, explaining that everything on the train is in perfect balance, and it is the maintenance of this balance that he cares for. Wilford says that Gilliam was in on this and the two cooperated to keep the human population in balance, where regular revolutions would help to trim the population of all carriages, and also serve to keep each side in fear of the other. A screen showing a live feed is then shown, and the bald man executes Gilliam. He let things get too out of hand Wilfred says – the front suffered too many casaulties, so he had to pay for that. Curtis is distraught, especially once the bald man is instructed by Wilfred to kill all but 18 of the tail-enders, in honour of their 18th year on the train.

Whether it’s true that Gilliam cooperated with Wilfred is questionable. Why would a man that cut off his own limbs to help people then agree to their managed slaughter? It could just be part of Wilford’s attempt to dehumanize humanity in Curtis’ eyes, which he nearly succeeds in doing. We find out, that Wilford wants Curtis to take over from him since Wilford is ageing. Again the theme of sustainability is present: everything in perfect balance, the new replaces the old, one for one.

Outside Namgoong is wounded and fending off hordes of attackers, angry at the theft of their drugs, on a small bridge before the final door. Franco the elder now reaches the bridge and the two battle it out. The woman who serves Wilford is sent out and the door is now open. We see the people fighting, the braying, crazed mob hungry for violence and it is here that Wilford wants to make Curtis see humanity for what it really is. Savages unable to think for themselves, only interested in their immediate desires. Curtis knows this already but had thought that some men, like Gilliam, are good. Whether true or not Wilford has crushed his belief in the good people that Gilliam represented.  Yona now runs to Curtis and begs him for help. For a moment, Curtis pushes her away and it seems that he is considering Wilford’s offer. Whether it’s the rear end, the front end, whoever it is, things will always be the same. It might as well be him that rules over them. But then, something happens. Andrew’s son, taken away at the beginning, appears, now shaven headed and working the internal machinery of the infinite engine. Wilford explains that parts are hard to come by now, but luckily the rear end produces a steady supply of small children that can fix the inside of the engine. It’s an act of cruelty too far for Curtis, who feels especially guilty for his crimes against children already, and he turns on Wilford. He then sees Tanya’s son but can’t get to him, the machinery is blocking his arm. He then realises that to save Tanya’s son he needs to sacrifice one of his arms, to jam the whirring gears, and use the other to rescue the boy. Curtis finally becomes a true leader and sacrifices a part of himself for the greater good, the life of a small boy.

Namgoong lights the bomb with the last match, having dispatched Franco the Elder at the bridge and our three heroes plus Tanya’s son embrace each other before the bomb goes off. Wilford is back at his seat and says, reflectively, “nice” as the bomb explodes. The train crashes, some carriages fall of a precipice, others mount up in a tunnel and others crash into the snow. Yona gets up with the boy. Everyone else is dead. She takes the fur coats her father seized, and wanders out to the snow with Tanya’s son. It’s warm enough for them to walk it seems, and there they see a polar bear. The camera focuses on the bear and the film ends.

I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this film. I like my action films, I like my dystopian films, and I like my sci fi and I like my politics. This has all of that, an excellent set production and some great actors. John Hurt’s an old hand at dystopian sci-fi films but Tilda Swinton really stole the show in this. Her character is as truly detestable as it is memorable. The plot might have its holes but the story acts as an interesting way to analyse our own world and in what direction our own train is maybe headed.

One theme that immediately slaps you in the face, but I haven’t read much about on from the internet commentariat, is that of sustainability. Man’s attempt to control global warming fails, plunging them into a frozen oblivion, except for the survivors on the train. The train itself is a closed ecosystem, and as Mason explains, everything has its place on the train. Infinite energy is provided by the engine, water is provided by the train breaking up ice at the front and filtering it through an internal system. The populations of fish, people and animals has to be carefully managed. It’s clear what the train represents – it’s Earth. The train is our Earth, and outside for them is frozen death, but also likewise for us. The cold of space is all that awaits us outside of our atmosphere. The train runs on an infinite energy source, its perpetual combustion engine. Ours is essentially the sun which as far as we are concerned might as well be infinite, although physically it’s not.

What I took from this film is how it attempts to highlight this comparison. Not many people truly understand that Earth is just like the train. It was Boulding that first popularised this image with his notion of ‘spaceship earth’ but that didn’t really capture the imagination of people outside of academic circles in environmentalism. I wonder, did Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer manage to convey this to the audience? Did people walk away from this film thinking, maybe for the first time, that we only have a limited space in which to inhabit? The train is the only home the passengers have, just as Earth is the only one we’ll ever have. Although future population projections show that we might stabilise at 9 billion people by the year 2050, even if we do, will we be able to all have the material wealth of an average European, let alone North American? Will we be able to develop a good quality of life for all of Earth’s citizens within the limits of the planet or will we maintain a permanent underclass of cheap labour in the East and the South? The answers that Snowpiercer offers to these questions is not particularly optimistic. A bloodbath will ensue if those at the bottom can’t get their share of the cake.

And even when a new system distributes the cake differently, can it deal with the ultimate source of the cake: nature? Snowpiercer insinuates that whatever our interaction with nature, it ends in disaster. We caused global warming and it threatened to destroy us. So we tried to control global warming, and we then destroyed ourselves. What’s left of us on a train is too busy destroying itself to exist in balance and harmony. The last survivors, Yona and Tanya’s son may be all that’s left of the human race, either ready to start again or tread the path of countless species before us into extinction. The warming planet and the polar bear’s cameo tell us what the director thinks. Nature will always be there, our own place within it is less assured. We must learn to live as a part of nature instead of constantly seeking control over it, for it cannot be controlled. Wilfred’s calculated plan to control the population goes awry, Curtis’ quest for justice results in nearly everyone dying, Tanya and Andrew’s search for their children yields only bitter fruit. The travails and the ambitions of all our characters passes into nothingness.

Does the director only offer us a dystopian, nihisltic vision of humanity? Perhaps. I did however see an interview with Bong Joon-ho, and in it he says that he hopes humanity can start again at the end. There may be other survivors still from the train. Certainly there’s nothing in his film to suggest that we have to be self-destructive to the point of mutual oblivion. There is goodness in some of the characters. Gilliam and eventually Curtis himself sacrifice their own limbs for the benefit of infants. Tanya and Andrew’s love for their own children carries them further into the train than they could have ever hoped was possible. There is a scene right at the beginning where an elderly violinist tries to protect his equally elderly wife as she is brutally assaulted by guards. He is taken away but shouts back to her, reassuring her that it’ll all be ok. Love is a present theme in the film, and it is where this love for our fellow human beings is, is where we see the most goodness in the characters.

This is juxtaposed with the prevailing badness of the characters, where they commit brutal acts against one another as they vie for control of the train or to satisfy their own physical needs. When we seek to control each other, then love goes out the window and in the end, we all lose. When we use love to even overcome our baser needs such as hunger, then we can triumph in a way that is not possible without love. Before he saw Gilliam cut off his own arm, Curtis was merely surviving. After Gilliam’s self-sacrifice, he started to live.

Can Yona and the others that are (maybe) left choose a different path, or is humanity doomed to make the same choices? Is Wilfred right about us, are we really violent savages that will do whatever we can for control, or can we love more and control less? The film doesn’t answer these questions, but it makes for a supremely entertaining way to ask them.

The recent “pause” in global warming and Typhoon Haiyan

It can be pretty difficult to get to grips with climate science. The climate is big and confusing, there are lots of unknown variables, and predicting the future will always be a tricky business. There are some very understandable misunderstandings but also some less forgivable basic errors that get routinely published. Let’s look at the two most common.

The IPCC Predictions

Much has been made in the past few days about climate change has supposedly ‘stalled’. For the record , it didn’t get colder. The planet is still a good 0.8° C warmer than it would have been without human activities. NASA calculated that and the last time I looked they weren’t funded by the fossil fuel lobby or the secret international consortium of wind farm enthusiasts. (wait a minute…) [1]. The reason warming has stalled in the last 15 years is because 1998 was an unusually warm year, much warmer than the years before or after it. So of course if you measure the temperature in the last 15 years you don’t see an increase from the base year of 1998. Actually, there are many individual years in the past 100 that you could pick to make the same point, but it doesn’t change the long term trend. makes this point extremely clear with the following two graphs.

warming combo

There are also articles claiming that the IPCC predictions were completely inaccurate, and that the current temperatures are much lower than predicted. This is quite wrong. The IPCC gives a range of predictions based on different scenarios. Since 1990 global surface temperatures have warmed at a rate of around 0.15°C per decade which is within the range of IPCC model projections from 0.10 to 0.35°C per decade. There is also a “multi-model mean” which average together all of the different model simulations. What many newspapers did in the past couple of weeks was only show the model averages, such as Der Spiegel here.

However, it’s unlikely that the climate will follow the average, especially in the short-term.  As Dana Nuccitelli explains on Skeptical Science, “If natural factors act to amplify human-caused global surface warming, as they did in the 1990s, the climate is likely to warm faster than the model average in the short-term. If natural factors act to dampen global surface warming, as they have in the 2000s, the climate is likely to warm more slowly than the model average.” If you average the models together, then the random natural variability in the individual models is cancelled out. But the climate only behaves like a single model simulation, not an average of many. [2]

The natural factors that are currently slowing surface warming include the oceans, which go through regular natural cycles of heat exchange with the surface. Right now, measurements show that the oceans are absorbing more heat. When this cycle changes, surface temperatures are going to get a lot hotter, as they did in 1998, which was one of the largest El Ninos on record.  Thus, nothing we’ve witnessed is unexpected, at least not if you were reading the IPCC reports.

Now could this extra heat that is being absorbed by the oceans also drive more powerful storms, more frequent storms or both? Haiyan has sparked a fierce debate in the scientific community about tropical storms and our warming world. As I read in an article on Slate, a 2008 article argued that all things being equal, warmer water will make more powerful cyclones.[3] However, the warming climate can change any number of variables that will then affect each other in ways that we have not yet been able to account for. Some will contribute to more powerful cyclones and some weaker. For now there is no consensus that climate change will lead to more powerful storms: more evidence is needed. Let’s hope that it’s not the case for the sake of the people living in cyclone regions. I wouldn’t bet on it though. In 20 years time with more plentiful and accurate data it’s likely that a strong causal link between climate change and powerful storms will be established. That excess energy in the oceans has to go somewhere….

Major Fallacy: Human C02 Emissions Don’t Cause Warming

Another common mistake that I read on the internet is that we produce so little C02 that it cannot possibly contribute to the warming of the planet, so the warming must come from natural factors. It’s true that humanity produces a tiny percentage of all C02 in the atmosphere. However, the C02 naturally produced is also naturally absorbed. For example and for the sake of simplicity, the C02 produced by forests is absorbed by the oceans. So nature produces many gigatonnes of C02 but also absorbs this. This left us with an amount of C02 in the atmosphere equivalent to around 280 parts per million (ppm). What we’ve done is add to that, and natural forces haven’t been able to absorb all of what we’ve added. So now we have 400ppm. Thus, we are trapping more heat, as observed by the recorded global temperature increases. It’s like compound interest, it starts off small, but that little percent builds up over time. If you’re a student from the UK you’ll probably know what I mean. C02 isn’t the only greenhouse gas of course but I use it here just for simplicity. Just about all other greenhouse gasses have increased too though, mostly because of human activities.

I say that the increase in greenhouse gasses has caused this temperature increase. To make it clear, it’s very likely that the increase in the global temperature is due to the rise in greenhouse gasses caused by us. But anyone looking for 100% certainty is going to be disappointed. That’s not how science works – there’s never 100% certainty in anything since there could always be something out there we haven’t discovered yet which could put our theories on their heads. It’s possible that something else is causing the warming, however there’s no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Anyone who wants to say otherwise needs to show that evidence they’ve been keeping secret from the world. For years some people have tried to say it’s the sun or this is all natural warming. In the case of the sun, it can explain some of the warming from the last century (a very small amount) and in the past 35 years, the sun has actually been cooling whilst temperatures have been increasing. The climate has of course always changed throughout history. But if you want to say that the current observed warming is purely natural, then you need to account for how the extra gases we’ve produced have somehow not trapped any heat?  And if that’s not causing the warming, then what on earth could be (since we’ve established it’s not the sun)?

Nothing I’ve written here is new. But some people reading this might have not read this information before. Many people on the internet certainly still insist that we can’t possibly be warming the planet because our C02 contribution is tiny. Even supposed journalists, e.g. James Delingpole, Dominic Lawson, Donna Laframboise etc make this very basic mistake. But I guess you can find just about any belief on the internet – check out The Flat Earth Society by the way, they’ve been promoting free thinking since 1999!

You might say that was low of me, but anyone who basically denies science in this way is comparable to someone that thinks the earth is flat, because they do exactly the same thing. Don’t get me wrong , you can be as sceptical about the future impacts of climate change. You can be sceptical about spending money on renewables instead of fossil fuels. You can be sceptical about the IPCC. But you cannot deny evidence. Are we really going to have to explain to our grandchildren in 50 years that we spent well over a decade arguing about recording temperatures and elementary physics?

John Wayne, Smoking and Climate Change

There once was a man called John Wayne. He was a very famous man. He was very strong and very tough. So tough that US army soldiers often referred to their toilet paper as “John Wayne toilet paper” because “it’s rough and tough and don’t take shit off no one”. He smoked 6 packs of cigarettes a day. Some doctors said that smoking was safe back then, so John probably wasn’t too worried. And he was as fit as a fiddle. Until he got lung cancer. Luckily for John, he could afford the best surgeons that money could buy. They removed an entire lung and he got better. Some say that maybe John got cancer when he starred in The Conqueror, where 41% of his colleagues developed some form of cancer, as the set was downwind of a nearby nuclear weapons testing site. But John thought it was from his 6 pack a day habit. So John stopped smoking cigarettes but was instead smoking cigars and chewing tobacco. And he got cancer again, this time in the stomach. Surgery couldn’t save him a second time though.

When John Wayne, maybe in the 1940s or 1950s was reading in the news that some doctors thought smoking might be really bad for your health, I wonder what he was thinking. Did he think that everything will be fine and that those doctors were just quacks? Maybe he figured that the risks were small. He could point to doctors that said it was good for you; maybe that always allayed his doubts? There was enough doubt in his mind to stop him from taking action.

Where did this doubt come from? Were doctors just crap back then?

No, the tobacco industry paid doctors to say that smoking was harmless.[1] Indeed, this became part of the whole strategy by the industry to cause as much doubt as possible about the link between smoking and cancer:

“I think we should give immediate attention to the possibility of running ads stating, in effect, that there is no scientific evidence of a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer” (Brown and Williamson, 1967)[2]

The mounting evidence that smoking tobacco caused cancer was a severe threat to the industry’s profits. They had to stand in the way of science if they were to keep their jobs. Understandable perhaps, but still wrong.

Well the same thing is happening again. History is repeating itself and as usual, not many people are paying much attention. As the planet continues its inexorable warming, there are still people quibbling about whether the planet is warming and if humans are responsible or not. Many of the think tanks that say climate change is not happening or not caused by humans receive funding from the fossil fuel industry. When these think tanks are then quoted in media outlets from Fox News to The Economist as some sort of authoritative scientific body, these links to the fossil fuel industry are often not mentioned. Can you imagine if a tobacco industry-funded doctor today were to be quoted in The Economist for saying that smoking doesn’t cause cancer without the slightly relevant topic of his funding being mentioned?

Well that’s happening today with climate change. The fossil fuel industry is purposefully trying to distort the public debate in climate science and they’ve been getting away with it for over a decade. Doubt is their product and their pushing it hard. So hard that a substantial portion of public opinion in the United States and the United Kingdom still thinks that cliamte scientists are in disagreement about whether or not global warming is happening. Whereas reality is somewhat closer to this below:

peer review

Other studies have generally found that 3% of all papers rejected the consensus. Either way, it’s not exactly a 50/50 split. Who are the skeptics exactly? I’m not going to go into too much detail, because there’s excellent documentation on other websites I’ll link to here, but there’s not many climate scientists it seems. One of the most famous is an ex-weatherman called Anthony Watts, who has a blog called Watts up with that. Watts, it turns out, has received payment from The Heartland Institute which also receives funding from ExxonMobil, which was to the tune of $600,000 between 1998 and 2006.[3]

In the UK, ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson heads the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think tank that excels in casting doubt about the scientific case for global warming, but it appears that Lawson may also have links to the fossil fuel industry. Certainly the GWPF is less than transparent about its sources of funding.[4]

I can’t exactly blame the fossil fuel industry for trying to protect their interests, even if they do it in an entirely dishonest and despicable manner. But I do blame people for ignoring the parallels between back then and today. Over 30 years ago, doctors were paid to cast doubt on the science of the harmful effects from smoking. Today some people are being paid to cast doubt on the science of climate change, although significantly this group hardly ever consists of any climate scientists.

The human race right now is John Wayne, and we’ve got cancer. Are we going to listen to the real doctors, cut down on smoking, get that surgery and recover? Or give in to industry-funded doubt and carry on with the same old habits that will make us even more sick?

– Note, of course John might have died from nuclear radiation rather than smoking. There’s no way to say which one it was, but in any given population we can say that a certain percentage of people will die prematurely as a result of smoking.
– The story of the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industrry, climate change and other environmental and health issues has been meticulously researched and described in the book Merchants of Doubt  by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

What do Lana Del Ray and Christopher Hitchens have in common?

They both have the same attitude towards death. Del Ray, as many will be aware, thinks that we are all born to die. Hitchens, a few months before his death from cancer said, “Everybody is [dying], but the process has suddenly accelerated on me.” I had heard something similar from a friend in school once, that we’re all born to die.

I don’t know how many people really think this way, but I suspect it’s a fair few people. Whether this thought or attitude bothers them too, I also don’t know. But I do think that it’s extremely wrong.

I find it wrong not because I’m uncomfortable with the idea that all living things will die, but simply because it just makes no sense to me. Yes, we’re all going to die. But if I’m supposedly dying until that point, then what the hell happened to the word ‘living’? Are we ‘dying things’ instead of ‘living things’? Of course not. Living is a process of self-sustainment. When that process stops, then we are dying. I’m not sure if there’s a clear line to say precisely when this happens but I would argue that this happens late in old age. For now it’s beside the point.

Despite the blurry line between living and dying, I can say that the only thing that can die is what was once alive. We don’t say that inanimate objects die, we say that they cease to exist or are destroyed. We use the word ‘die’ or ‘death’ in a particular way to describe what happens to a living thing once it ceases to be living. There is no death without life and there is no life without death. They are two sides of the same coin. And there’s nothing religious about that statement, it’s simply an observation.

A lot of people are scared about dying, it is maybe even something every single human being goes through. In British society today we tend not to talk about it a lot. I think this is wrong and is quite harmful for our mental well-being. Let’s talk about the inevitable, the common thread that unite us all. By not talking about it we are making it harder to confront. And let’s also not view it as something negative, but instead as a privilege even?  An at times terrifying and painful privilege, but still one nonetheless. Because if you are going to die then it means that you are living right now. For many people it is perhaps not so much of a favour, because life is unbearably painful for them. But for the lucky ones amongst us that on the whole enjoy observing events on this spaceship Earth, we can be thankful. Richard Dawkins made the same point much better on a wonderful video about life and how unlikely and random it is. Take a look if you’re interested:

Perhaps a better expression then, would be that “we are born to live and then die”. Lana probably wouldn’t have sold as many records and Hitchens probably wouldn’t have upset as many people if they had both said that, but they both would have been more accurate. 

“About Life and People” Pt.I Training

In a little break from environmentalism this is an extract from “About Life and People”, an autobiography by William Dron, my Grandfather and hero. For anyone interested in what life was like for a somewhat ordinary British soldier (he played the pipes, so was not on the frontline as was decreed by General Montgommery after 1943), then I hope that you will find this account interesting as well as entertaining. It is a tale told with compassion, honesty and a good degree of down to earth humour. I’m still editing all the Scots and British dialect to make it more readable for the international reader. At this point in the Autobiography, William, or ‘Bill’, has enrolled into the army and is on his way to Fort George, in the Highlands of Scotland. 

The Army.

I set of for Fort George full of a mixture of hope and apprehension not knowing what to expect.  Although Dad had been in the Army he didn’t offer me any advice on what life was like or how to play it.  Therefore I arrived in Fort George on the Moray Firth a complete innocent and it didn’t take long for the Army to knock that out of me.  I think I was half expecting a warm welcome, as a volunteer, and being granted a few favours when they realised how lucky they were at gaining such a brilliant recruit.  That was not the Army way I’m afraid, there were no favours, everyone was treated exactly the same, like cattle!  We were harried from pillar to post from morn till night until we didn’t know whether we were coming or going.  Of course that was done on the principle that you began to accept orders without question and without using your own brain.  After we had all the inoculations and vaccinations we were given 24 hours to recuperate.  I did not recuperate very well but fell ill with tonsillitis and was shifted to the sick-bay, which was another Nissan hut but with linoleum on the floor and sheets on the beds, the lap of luxury.  The food was from the mess hall, in other words inedible, and the medication was Asprin, which was ineffective.  After a few days even the M.O. realised I was not improving and I was transferred to the Hospital.  When I arrived I was met by a nurse who ordered me to take a bath before sullying her clean sheets.  Once in bed I was given a load of large pills and fell into a deep sleep, only to be wakened and fed another dose.  This went on for the next couple of days until I awoke one morning feeling much better and absolutely ravenous.  The pills were one of the sulphonamides a fairly recent discovery and a precursor of penicillin.  I was duly pronounced fit and returned to duty.

Thus was my inglorious entry into the Army; hardly the stuff of regimental history.  When I returned to duty I was dumped into a new intake of conscripts, what a come down for the brilliant recruit.  But as the old saying goes the De’il looks after his own.  The volunteer platoon had been set up as an example to the poor conscripts of how a platoon should act and behave with true military zeal.  I need hardly add that by this time my zeal had sunk without trace and I was more than content to settle with the poor conscripts.  The volunteers were mostly Army Cadets who could strip down a Bren Gun and knew Army Regulations as well as, if not better than, the NCO’s.  That wasn’t so difficult as some of the NCO’s, especially the Regulars, were not noted for their intellectual capacity.  Training began therefore in trying to turn a bunch of unfit civilians into trained fighting machines.  I had thought I was fairly fit because I had done a lot of hard cycling in the previous months, on Saturday afternoons I often did a circuit by Forfar- Kirrie-Alyth about 40/50 miles.  However I soon realised that my comparative fitness was as nothing compared to what it became in four months time.  Apart from square bashing i.e. drill, we had to do physical drill, route marching, forced marches with full pack, and generally run about like mad things until we were passed as trained recruits.  Note! not yet trained soldiers, we still had a long way to go.

After the first six weeks we were allowed out to sample the delights of Inverness on a Saturday afternoon.  It was a busy place with lots of military personnel and loads of Canadian lumberjacks who were stripping out the adjoining forests.  We soon found a Church of Scotland canteen offering home cooking, warmth, and cheery female faces.  It was a regular port of call for us as the food was such a contrast to the usually inedible Army grub.  I fell in love with Inverness or ‘Snecky’ as it became, a play on Harry Gordon’s (the famous Scots comedian) ‘Inversnecky’.  It was a bonny wee [nice, small] town then, steeped in history with a wonderful position on the River Ness the Caledonian Canal and Tomnahurich (The hill of the Fairies) the most picturesque cemetery in Scotland.

During my time in the Fort the realisation dawned upon me that my political views were not so far to the left as I had thought.  The nemesis that brought about this transformation was a Campbell in my platoon.  He was a theatrical type from Glasgow, a committed Communist, and a thorn in my flesh.  There was not one single thing we had in common and we fought bitterly on every subject discussed, until I came to the conclusion that my political salvation lay more in terms of Socialism.  Many years later I discovered Gordon? Campbell had become a great man in the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and a famous director.  I have much to thank him for.

The following ten weeks were devoted to Infantry training; by this stage the halt and the blind had been sorted out and the survivors were deemed to be suitable for the infantry or, as some say, rejected by everyone else.  We were taught fieldcraft- weapons training – map reading and so on.  One young Corporal had trouble with a map until I noted it was upside down but he was a good sort and I didn’t get a severe reprimand.  The tips I had from Grandfather Dron, who was a crack shot, should have helped in the shooting but the old Lee Enfields we used in target practice were not very good.  It wasn’t until we got the Bren a light machine gun that I had better results.  All good things must come to an end and at the finish of this period we were posted to Battalions.  My draft were sent to the Italian front but I was too young and was posted to the Liverpool Scottish the English Territorial Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

At last I became a full member of the Camerons but it was strange having so many Englishmen sporting the tartan and talking Liv’pool.  They had to show some Scottish roots to get into the Terriers and were proud of their Scottish connections.  I applied to join the band when I met the Battalion in Eastbourne on the South Coast of England, a long way from Fort George.  I was unable to do so until I survived a further spell of training and became a Trained Soldier.  When I got into the band I was a fairly average piper but there were few class players in the band.  The only one I remember was Hutchison  a regular soldier from Edinburgh.  He was a flashy guy and a flashy player and the only one who comes to mind.  The Pipe Major was a Terrier not a great piper but a reasonable man.  He was a good dancer and got together a dance team for the Strathspeys and Reels [a type of dance], I enjoyed dancing and became a member of the team.  It was traditional in the Highland Regiments for the bandsmen to specialise in dancing.

One of our duties on the coast was to patrol at night to repel any incursions by the enemy.  This involved a cycle patrol along a section of coast between Eastbourne and Hastings where the Martello Towers stand (built to warn of invasion by Bonaparte).  I used to set out on my bike in the wee small hours with my trusty rifle, 50 rounds of ammunition, and not a clue of how I would react if a boatload of Storm Troopers landed on my patch.  Pretty scary in the dark hoping you wouldn’t bump into anyone or anything but OK on a beautiful moonlit night when you could see for miles.  The effectiveness of the patrol was never tested, thank God.

About November 1943 we were moved to Northern Ireland to a wee town called Banbridge in County Down not far from Belfast.  This was a popular posting, food was plentiful and cheap there were lots of bonnie lassies [beautiful young women] and the war seemed far away.  A Battalion of American troops were in an adjacent camp and we made friends with some of them and heard interesting stories of Hollywood and the stars.  One chap claimed to be a nephew of Mary Pickford (the Screens Sweetheart) it may have been true and in any case he was a great storyteller.  The most interesting commodity in Banbridge was food; all the wee cafes served ham and eggs, toast and tea for the princely sum of half a crown (12½p).  We soon discovered that the Americans were being charged much more as their wages were vastly superior to ours.  Not only that, but also their equipment resources, their living conditions, and their food bore no comparison to ours.  We were using the basic equipment of the First World War while the Yanks had modern weapons superior back-up and food we would have killed for.  Their attitude to discipline was much more relaxed, their officers were treated as equals instead of superior beings, and while this may have had an effect on their performance as fighting men, it certainly made life a whole lot easier for the ‘Doughboys’.  To me it was an example of American democracy and a complete contrast in class distinctions.

Whilst in Ireland I discovered a certain aptitude for cross-country running which came as a shock, because I was a bit of a dead loss when running with full equipment.  The Adjutant was an enthusiast for the sport and that meant the Company was expected to be just as keen.  One day we were out on a long run when I got my second wind and just started to run comfortably increased my pace until I finished in the leading group, much to the amazement of my Corporal who had viewed my previous efforts with disdain.  The downside of my career in Ireland took place one dark and freezing winters night when I was hurrying back to billets.  I was pounced upon by two Regimental Police [RP’s] and charged with the heinous crime of having my coat collar turned up.   Next morning the Company Officer was mortified that I had let the Company down so badly – the RP’s involved – the Honour of the Regiment – Three Days Confined To Barracks!  C.B. or as we called it ‘Cockie Bendy’.  I was a criminal with a record, three days of spud bashing, would I ever be able to hold up my head again in decent society?  At the same time the C.O. let it be known that my record showed that I had been marked down as N.C.O. material, and he hoped I would mend my ways.  Is it not some sort of miracle that we won the war with such attitudes?

I had always hoped that my Grandfathers aptitude for marksmanship would rub off on me and it was in Ireland that it came to pass.  The Bren gun was my favourite weapon it seemed to suit me much better than the rifle.  One day we were having a competitive shoot on the banks of Lough Neagh, that huge inland loch [lake], and I couldn’t make a mistake I just kept getting ‘Bulls’.  Eventually it came down to a straight contest between the Regimental Sergeant Major and me and I won.  I’m afraid the R.S.M. wasn’t very sporting about it in fact he was decidedly unchuffed [unhappy].

Good news at last, I got my first leave in December 1943 and would be home for Christmas.  We took the boat over to Stranraer, the bus to Ayr, then to Glasgow, and the train to Dundee.  It was good to be home in the bosom of the extended family and visit all the relatives I possibly could.  Not for long, as a Telegram arrived telling me to report back pronto.  This was ominous, the Battalion could be going overseas, so I bade a fond farewell to Mum and Dad, and returned.  I actually travelled back on Hogmany [New Year’s Day] and arrived in Ireland on New Year’s Day.  As soon as I reported in I found I was on a draft to another unit.  After a few days preparation about one hundred of us embarked for destinations unknown.  One of the draftees was a drummer Abbie George who I knew well; I think we were the only ones from the band.  A few of the draft like Abbie had been pre-war Terriers and had spent four years in a training Battalion, never having heard a shot fired in anger.  I almost felt sorry for them.  We sailed back to the mainland, a much easier passage than at New Year, when the seas were crashing over the decks, and the bogs [toilets] were full of very sick troops.  We entrained and set of on the usual wild goose chase all over England until we finished up in High Wycombe.  When the train drew to a halt in the station my heart sank when I saw numbers of soldiers with Red Hackles in their Tam-O-Shanters (Bonnets).  The Black Watch!  I was not impressed atall atall.  I could have joined the Watch in Dundee without going to the bother of becoming a Cameron.  I considered it a terrible loss of dignity to come from a Real Highland Regiment, to one with an ambivalent history and some support for the Hanoverians against the Prince*.  Besides they were only quasi-highlanders coming from Fife, Angus, and Perthshire.  I considered giving the Colonel my thoughts on the subject, but when I met him he seemed such a decent fellow, I didn’t have the heart to hurt his feelings.  He was in fact Chic Thomson a Dundee C.A. and when he asked where I came from, and what I did in civvie street, he was delighted when I mentioned Jute Industries; his Father had been one of the original Directors.  I thought I would be OK in this crowd having the Colonel as a friend but I don’t think I ever spoke to him again.  C’est la Vie!

The Pipe Major appeared after the Colonel to ask if there were any Bandsmen in the draft?  Abbie and I stepped forward smartly and did our party pieces.  I thought I would be diplomatic and played Heilan’ Laddie the Black Watch regimental march,  Abbie did some fancy stick work, and we were admitted to the ranks of the band, an action which probably saved our lives…

Part II will see Bill head off to the vision of hell that was the battlefield in the direct aftermath of the D-Day landings. 

*The Blackwatch were born with this name, as they were originally a militia founded in 1725 to “keep watch” over the unlawful highlands. The Regiment had sided with the British Government during the Jacobite Rising of ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’, the grandson of the last Catholic King of England, Ireland and Scotland, James VII and II (seventh of Scotland, Second of England)

A spontaneously quick interview with Bettervest founder, Patrick Mijnals

I was in Vallendar (near Koblenz) a couple of weeks ago. I went for a conference all about social entrepreneurship with a Belgian friend from class. We took a train all the way there from Freiburg and it felt good to travel up the Rhine again after quite a while away from the region. It is such a strange mixture of commerce, nature and history. There’s always cargo barges going up and down, and numerous castles dotted along the way. Those were set up by little lords that would tax passing boats for using the river.  All are set against a backdrop of steep, small hills and sometimes patchy areas of forest.

Vallendar itself is nothing remarkable apart from the fact that it contains a British red telephone box. That and the Otto Beisheim School of Management, a well-known private university in Germany that has a reputation for producing the CEOs, business leaders and managers that power the massive German economy forwards.

There were quite a few interesting presentations at the conference. One stand-out, in terms of product at least, was the ‘Peepoople’ company. These guys produce a kind of bag for people who don’t have toilets that they can use. It has some sort of bacteria inside that transforms the crap into fertiliser! Needless to say, it could contribute massively to making urban slums less dirty although the question of whether the poorest people on the planet can really afford these things is an important one. They’re only about one or two cents per bag, but for people with very little that can mean a lot. Still, aid agencies seem to be a good customer for them so far.

There were some other good presentations that I need not go into here. What I really wanted to talk about was a workshop I was lucky to take part in with the ‘Bettervest’ founder, Patrick Mijnals. Now, before I took part in the workshop I have to confess that I thought Bettervest was just a kind of Crowdfunding Carrotmob platform. However, a minor detail makes this concept much, much bigger in my opinion. The video below is only in German so for those that haven’t wasted several years of their lives trying to learn this language, please allow me to explain. In this case, there’s a little girl that wants to refurbish the heating system of her school to make it more energy efficient and thus help the environment. To do this she puts her advert or project on the Bettervest site. Then, people can give money to help the girl reach her target. A typical Crowdfunding platform so far. However, with Bettervest they can instead invest that money rather than give it away for nothing. How do they earn a return? Simple, the money saved through the energy efficiency goes back to the investors. Every year the school will save money on its energy bills and the money saved will be distributed amongst the investors. It’s like Carrotmob but one step further. With Carrotmob a business makes money. With Bettervest everyone makes money, it’s Carrotmob to the power of a 1000. Bettervest’s name is perhaps not so catchy in the English language, although I think that it works in German.

In the workshop we were supposed to write out a business canvas or something – we did this half-heartedly but the group was much more interested in talking to Patrick about his concept. Towards the end of the workshop I suddenly realised that it might make an interesting blog to ask Patrick a couple of questions about the enterprise. I had less than 5 minutes to ask some hastily thought of questions, so I’m sorry it’s short!

So, Patrick, how did you come up with the idea for Bettervest? 

Patrick Mijnals

Patrick Mijnals

Patrick:  I have been a trends and innovation consultant for a while now and also been into the Crowdfunding scene from early on in its development. A long time ago I read a book by Ernst von Weizsäcker (now President of the Club of Rome) called “Factor Four”. He argues that four times as much wealth can be extracted from the resources we currently use. So for a long time I had ideas that were influenced by this book and once I got more into the idea of Crowdfunding I was able to combine the two.

Your background is in psychology, what especially makes you think that your concept will be successful? Do you have any psychological insights to share?

Patrick: Yes, (points to logo on his leaflets), this here will hypnotize ever…..laughs, no there is sadly no secret; it’s just all about motivations. In this case we score in every way as people can promote sustainability but also serve their own interests. It’s as simple as that.

What has been your biggest mistake/hurdle?

Patrick: If anything it’s that we’ve probably been too precise, too cautious. It’s only from your mistakes that you learn, so if anything we are probably not making enough mistakes! Another big challenge for us is working together over a large distance. [Patrick is part of a team of five, each covering a different area, e.g. energy efficiency, finance, IT etc and they are often in different parts of the country]

And what have you enjoyed the most about running a start-up?

Patrick: Seeing people working together and growing. Also coming to events like this and seeing you guys tell us what a great idea it is and just talking about different possibilities is a lot of fun!

With that we had to get out of the workshop room and go into the main conference hall for the closing session. I came away feeling very excited about this business. For sure there are some potential problems. I thought that changing energy prices might be one of them (how on earth would you calculate this?) but Patrick explained that the return is calculated each year by multiplying the amount of saved energy (in kilowatt) with the current energy price. This would be a fair deal, since the project owner would have to pay the current energy price anyway, with or without the energy efficiency project. And the crowd will get its interest even when the prices rise.

Cold fusion is a potential threat too!* Nevertheless, I think the concept is a great one and if they execute it well then chances are this will be a well-known and successful platform in a few years time. It also makes a nice change that this is an original start-up coming from Germany, as most are just cut and paste jobs from the US!

The business isn’t yet off the ground and for now the website is just a beta version. Even so, it will be interesting to see how things go for them.

*Patrick wrote back on this to say “…I would love to see cold fusion 🙂 It might be a problem for our business model, but the purpose of our social business is to solve the problem, not just to make money! In my opinion this is exactly the difference between conventional business and social business. I would be glad to see, that bettervest isn’t “needed” anymore and my team and I can dedicate ourselves to another social/sustainable challenge.”

Interesting reply and it certainly makes clear the distinction between the mentalities of traditional businesses and their newer social competitors! 

It’s not cool….yet

With all these thoughts about what it means to be green, it’s perhaps interesting to think about what it will mean to be green in 100 years from now. That’s because, 100 years from now, being ‘green’ will be cool. Being green will be hip. Everyone in fact, will be green. Or at least the cool people will, those other ones don’t matter. And I mean genuinely cool. Celebrities or yuppies that profess to be green today often aren’t all that green, and if they are really green, they’re often not that cool.

Take for example, George Clooney. He’s so green he drives TWO hybrid cars. Not to mention all that flying around the globe (a necessary burden for celebrities, you understand). He also had a pet pig, and to my mind at least, nothing else on this fine green earth could be cooler than having a pet pig. But pigs aren’t green, as they eat lots. If everyone had a pet pig it’d be really unsustainable, not to mention smelly. Thus Clooney is undoubtedly cool, but not so undoubtedly green.

Then on the other hand we have celebrities that seem genuinely green but are generally uncool. Remember Daryl Hannah? Of course you don’t, she’s uncool (but cast your mind back to the lady with an eye patch in Kill Bill)! That’s because she spent some time in jail last year protesting against the construction of the keystone XL pipeline. That was valuable time she could have spent travelling the globe to promote her latest film, Eldorado. Exactly, you’ve never heard of it. She also once spent 23 days atop a tree in support of urban farming. And if you’re reading this and thinking those things are cool it’s probably because you’re already a greenie, and guess what, you’re by default not cool (see below). Moral of the story, you can’t maintain your cool celebrity status whilst getting arrested. For further proof of this, google ‘Lindsay Lohan’.

But what about ordinary people being green, it’s the cool thing these days, right? Wrong! Being genuinely green means doing uncool things. It might mean washing less frequently. It might mean buying fewer things – no iPhone 5! No Samsung tablet! People that don’t own these things are uncool. Even worse, it might mean travelling less, and if one thing is cool today, it’s travelling. Doesn’t matter what you do once you’re there, you could go to Starbucks or do generic local activities that everyone does and then post pictures of the local cuisine on Facebook, with obligatory jealousy inducing captions, whatever it is, you are cooler for doing it abroad. But especially somewhere far, far away. That’s because getting to ‘know’ cultures from very away is hip. It’s exotic and makes you appear cultured. Imagine if you told a friend that you went on holiday to Belgium. Now imagine they tell you they went to Egypt. That friend is now cooler than you. Not just because Egypt is further away (from Europe) but because no matter where you’re from, Egypt is always cooler than Belgium. Even Libyans would rather go to Egypt than Belgium. Hell, even Egyptians would rather go to Egypt than Belgium. And they would all be the cooler for it.

I cheated with my example, but it was worth it to make fun of Belgium.

Worst of all, being green might mean being Vegetarian. Like gingers, it’s still perfectly acceptable in modern society to mock vegetarians like no other category of people. This one below is my favourite.



Despite repeated efforts by well-known vegetarians such as Paul McCartney and – I really can’t think of another and am too lazy to Google it – others , vegetarianism is still not accepted by mainstream society. Go home to mum and tell her that you’re going veggie and mum shall swiftly proceed to mock you. Mine would at least. Your friends will also look at you suspiciously, even with confusion, like small children [SPOILER ALERT!] being told for the first time that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Men especially might question your sexuality, should you also be male. If you are female then they might make crude jokes.

Fit into one of these demographics? Feeling quite offended? Good, that was the point, but fear not! In 2113 being green will be cool. Indeed, just like tech geeks that were once viciously mocked without mercy but now rule the world*, greenies will also emerge from this storm of cruelty to claim their place on the throne of mainstream society. Green will finally, be cool. The change for this shift, in no small part thanks to the pioneers of yesteryear and today, will come about because just like the tech geeks saw the digital revolution coming and made it their own, the greens saw the, erm, green revolution coming. The greenies will be proven right about everything. It will be proven that animals are actually conscious of their surroundings and are living in terrible agony every day on meat and dairy farms, just as it will that you don’t actually have to wash all that much. The climate will have changed, perhaps by as much as 6 degrees, in which case there won’t be much exotic travelling because all the exotic places won’t be there anymore. Basically, greens will have been right all along, by which point green habits will be essential, so everyone will do it. And if everyone does it, then it will be cool. Celebrities like Daryl Hannah will have small shrines erected in their honour. Paul McCartney and all those other ones will be spoken of in revered tones. “They were right all along” the youth of the future will say, “why did no one listen to them?”. Celebrities won’t fly across the world to promote movies and songs; they will simply have a body double in each country (that’s left) to do that for them. It’ll be greener – and cooler. But the planet will be hotter, which is obviously not cool. But don’t worry about that, be cool and get back on Youtube.

* See this video of Bill Gates jumping over a chair. Back then it was just geeky Bill Gates being geeky Bill Gates. But today it’s, “BILL GATES JUMPING OVER A CHAIR, HOW COOL IS HE? ROFL!”

This article was originally posted on

Different Shades of Green, or Brown, rather…

This was originally posted on

A lot of the content of this blog seeks to discuss how ‘Green’ the City of Freiburg is. How sustainable is the city? How much do the people really care about environmental problems? Is Freiburg on the right track to becoming a truly Green city, if it’s not already?

Having now spent a month in Cairo I can tell you that a lot of these discussions seem nothing short of absurd, no better encapsulated than by the ridiculous discussion about tree roots and bike paths. Just in case you missed it, this was a complaint raised by one disgruntled MEG student that the roots of trees adjacent to the bicycle lanes in Freiburg slowed down his desired speedy journeys around the town, as he had to slow down to over the bumps that the roots had created on the path.

For a start, the average Cairoean would probably consider it something of a luxury to be able to cycle in his or her city in the first place. There are a few brave souls that try this, most notably bread delivery boys with massive trays of freshly baked bread stacked on their heads and also the odd small child here and there. I did once see a European/North American riding amongst the traffic in downtown Cairo but I do not think that he was long for this world.

The problem is, is that Cairo’s traffic is notoriously bad. Cars fill up almost every street and there aren’t many places in the centre that are free from cars for longer than a minute or two. And it’s not that the cars are ever travelling at a particularly fast speed: there’s seldom much opportunity to travel at more than 30 kilometers per hour before another approaching car will block the way ahead or move in from the ‘lane’ next to yours to grab the prized car-free space just in front of you.

Driving in Cairo is like a war. This was how it was explained to me during my first week here and there’s without a doubt no better way to describe it. You have to fight for your space, to get ahead. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you just do it. Having said that it’s mostly a rather civil war. You can steal space, barge into other lanes, stop the car for 10 minutes whilst you argue with a passenger (this happens rather often) but once you just carry on moving and put your hand out of the window to make a conciliatory gesture then everything’s ok after that. “That obnoxious scoundrel just stole the space in front of me even though he skipped the queue behind me to jam into this lane but never mind, he made the sign of peace after doing so” seems to be the predominant attitude. There are fights of course, mostly between microbus drivers, driving all day like that would probably make you very angry too, but considering the outrageous levels of space-thievery and what a European mentality would consider downright rudeness, the system functions. It doesn’t function well, but it somehow chudders along, defying the state of chaos that seems destined to engulf it but never actually does.

It’s this constant game of dodgems (dodgems are a popular fairground ride, see below) which makes cycling almost impossible. Almost impossible without injury at leastHaving lots of cars on the road would, if anything, aid cycling because the cars are never able to generate enough speed thus making it a bit safer for you to cycle. When the cars continuously fight for free bits of concrete right in front of them though, is when it gets dangerous for the modest cyclist.

The alternative to the car or bus is the metro. This is certainly a large network that stretches from North to South of the city and from the centre to the West but in a place as huge as Cairo it’s not enough for most commuters, making some part of their journey by road all but inevitable. The amount of time lost in traffic is tremendous. Perhaps much worse, the pollution is terrible. Breathing in Cairo air is like being constantly reminded of your mortality. You can feel the death around you. Once, I was in the unfortunate position of having to run after my microbus and there was no traffic in the way to slow it down! This happens rarely, I can assure you. Anyway, after a decent effort that I’m sure Mo Farah would have been proud of I was forced to give up. The bus was long gone and my lungs felt like they were stuffed with feather dusters. Feather dusters that had just cleaned the average student’s apartment at that. As a consequence of having been born in London I have asthma but luckily it’s barely noticeable in my day to day life. After this bus chase though, I shamefully had to sit down and take my inhaler, like a fat kid that had stuffed his face with sweets but through the necessity of survival was finally forced to inhale. I felt old and unfit. Perhaps upon my return my fellow students will have noticed a remarkable ageing in me. Ha! No longer shall I look like a youthful, joyful idealist but instead like a grey, hollow-eyed Grampa, which is actually a much truer representation of my character.

Let’s get a broader perspective on this, away from my own anecdotal evidence. In 2007 there were 6 deaths from road traffic deaths per 100,000 people in Germany. In Egypt it was 41.6.[1]  The mortality rate for children due to respiratory diseases is 120.86 in Egypt per 100,000 people and 0.51 in Germany. [2] A direct comparison between Freiburg and Cairo would be even worse I expect, as Cairo is worse than average for Egypt and Freiburg better than average for Germany. Different shades of Green indeed.

None of what I’ve written here has really captured the awfulness that is Cairo’s traffic. Professional writers/talented people have no doubt attempted this somewhere on the web. What I wanted to make clear however, is just how luxurious it is to live in a city with good public transport and the possibility to cycle everywhere without fear of mutilation. How glorious it is indeed to breath in clean air, almost as pure as when nature herself first made it all those millions or billions of years ago. To not spend 2 hours stuck in traffic for what should really be a 45 minute journey is a reason for celebration. To discuss how Green Freiburg is in comparison to cities such as Cairo seems almost pointless.

But this isn’t a pointless discussion. Humanity’s evolution has often followed the path of progress. In Freiburg there is still much room for this. As that now famous quote from the Mayor of Bogota goes, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. Freiburg does not yet match this vision, but it’s closer to it than many places. Let us be critical of Freiburg’s environmental failings and support the city in attaining this beautiful vision of sustainability and equality. Let’s not lose our sense of perspective however, and remain thankful for the blessings that we have.

Beware The Trojan Horse.

The Climate Wars could be entering the ‘end-game’ here if a new strategy deployed by the ‘denier’ lobby is successful. Denier is a term often used here to denote an individual who denies the science behind climate change. That will all change now.

Professor Richard A. Muller, head of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project and physics professor at the University of Berkeley, has just written an article in the New York Times declaring his “conversion” to what has been mainstream science for a long, long time. Professor Muller has even gone one step further and declared that “Humans are almost entirely the cause” of global warming as opposed to IPCC reports which suggest that human industrial activity may only be one cause, in combination with natural cycles. (Check out the article here)

Excellent news, no? The war between sceptics and believers is over. All are agreed that climate change is caused by human activity. Natural sciences departments in universities across the world have rejoiced. UNEP offices will witness many a sunrise and dark moon as cleaners put them back in working order. Professor Michael Mann, vilified by the engine of denial and its boot-lickers, magnanimous in victory has congratulated Professor Muller for behaving like a “good scientist”. Blogs of poison can cease. Quite terrible name-calling is needed no more. Finding the solutions for a bright new world with a planetary temperature of no more than a two extra degrees can begin.

Sadly not. What we are witnessing instead is a very cunning shift in denier strategy. That game is up. No longer could they deny the science brought together by the IPCC and nor could they come up with a better theory as to why the planet was warming. They could not even keep on pretending that the planet was not indeed warming. They have, however, shifted the goal posts. Rather than deny that the basic science is accurate, they will now deny that climate change poses any threat to human well-being. This is nothing new but merely a shift in emphasis. Professor Muller’s article is the perfect Trojan Horse and could be the final tactic that makes sure this war is really over.

Muller’s article is uncontroversial except for the part where he predicts warming to increase to a level above IPCC predictions. That was worrying, but not as worrying as the paragraph where he essentially states that the threat of climate change is overblown, unsubstantiated or just plain false. He then goes on to list several examples to support his point. I’ll deal with those, courtesy of Skeptical Science, at the bottom of this page. For now though let’s focus on the New York Times article.

It’s written in a very clever way to achieve what the main objective of the denier lobby has always been – to delay meaningful action on climate change for as long as possible. Muller points out that the BEST methodology is indeed the best; better than the IPCC’s. He argues that his data is superior and therefore gives better results. It is important to link this to what I’ve written above. By framing the article in this way Muller seeks to position himself as the true scientist, the one with integrity who didn’t go leaping to conclusions just like those inferior scientists from the IPCC did. Now that Professor Muller and his team have truly, scientifically established that humans are warming the planet, he can now go on to find out what the negative effects from this warming will be. Do not trust what the IPCC has to say, for their methodology is weak and inferior. Wait for us to provide the real answers. It’s the waiting, as the sea ice caps melt and the deserts expand, that Muller wants. It’s the waiting which is what the oil industry needs, more and more time to extract that oil before those bothersome scientists obstruct their work.

If this is the case then it could signal a slight shift in the debate from one that argues over what was fairly established science, and thank God for that at least, to one that is certainly less established – predicting the future. We cannot know what the future is, but good science can help us to make good predictions. The war will now rage over what is good science in this department and what makes a good prediction. But before these new battles commence we have to beware this Trojan Horse sent to us by Professor Muller. It would be a disaster for progress if climate scientists were to come out en masse and congratulate Professor Muller, or not to challenge the inevitable news coverage, because it would give him legitimacy, therefore making it easier for the “sceptical” lobby to employ the argument I outlined above. Muller has been the closest thing to legitimate that the denial industry, filled with crackpots, has. For the scientific community to ignore what is blatantly a new way to further delay investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and wholesale system change is to allow it to succeed.

And how does this all fit together? Oil money. It’s no secret that the Koch brothers have funded this project and it’s no secret that big oil has funded the denial machine, just as the tobacco industry did for lung cancer. People were shocked, and many environmentalists satisfied with the delicious irony, when the Koch-funded BEST project results came in and confirmed what was already known for a very long time. If big oil could fund a project that confirmed the scientific consensus then clearly we can now trust oil-funded research. Now it’s all very clear why this was done. It began the implementation of a long term strategy of delay. It is still not yet time to party – or it really will be game, set and match to the oil industry.

What Muller is probably wrong about in the article

Skeptical Science provides the rebuttal.

1) Polar bear populations are decreasing

2) The Himalayan Glaciers will not be gone by 2035, but most are retreating. An excellent deployment of the cherry picking tactic.

3) Hurricanes. Even if they are decreasing in frequency in the US, it is certainly not possible to claim with much certainty that they are decreasing globally.

4) The warming in the US is offset by cooling elsewhere in the world. It seems contradictory to ‘discover’ that global temperatures are increasing but then somehow imply that the warming witnessed in the US cannot be attributed to global climate change? Perhaps the BEST results are only for the US?

5) Medieval warm period.

Carrotmob Freiburg 2.6.12

Freiburg’s 5th Carrotmob was a deliciously sunny affair, with excellent carrot cake, carrot soup and carrot quiche in abundance. The carrot cake sold out actually, much to the disappointent of some late ‘mobbers. ChezFine, an organic restaurant specializing in French cuisine, pledged to give 90% of the revenue made from the day towards making environmental improvements in the restaurant. A special ‘gunstig’ menu was prepared by the ChezFine team so that everyone could enjoy the food at what is normally a more upmarket establishment – internalizing those externalities has to cost more by definition.

Andrea and Miriam enjoying some first time ‘mobbing!

In total 623 euros, 50 eurocent was raised for improvements to be made at ChezFine. To get an idea of what that could achieve consider the assessment made by energy assessors from A new radiator at a cost of 400 euros could save an estimated 10,000 kWH (kilo-watt-hours) per year and an average saving of 2320 kilograms of Co2 per year. Amazingly this would save ChezFine an estimated 2100 euros per year in energy costs.

The total investment that could have been made at ChezFine according to the energy assessor was 4,886 euros, which would have resulted in monetary savings of 2931 euros per year, with an energy saving of 13,956 kWh and Co2 of 3617 grams per year. In just two years the restaurant would make back the money if they were to invest in all of the improvements! Obviously most of this would come from a new radiator. It’s amazing to think that a 400 euro investment could save so much. I’ll have to email the energy assessors to see if they can explain how this is so.

The report

It just goes to show what an excellent idea Carrotmob is. Local businesses can be supported, the environment aided and people made happy (that cake was amazing). Before we get too happy though we still need to confirm that the restaurant have used the money as they said they would. Will keep you posted. In the meantime enjoy these photos of a lovely Saturday in sunny Freiburg. Thanks to all those who came!

Enjoying the sun and music

A lot of international student love.


ChezFine. Or CHEzFINE.


For more information about Carrotmobs in Freiburg see on see and for the Carrotmob concept in general